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What’s the point of increased U.S. pressure on Iran? Not even the Trump administration seems sure

National Security Adviser John Bolton
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
National Security Adviser John Bolton seems more focused on regime change in Iran.

It’s easy to imagine any number of bad things happening as a result of the sharp increase in tensions between the United States and Iran. Those threats are real, and serious. But it’s also possible to imagine a less-dire scenario that’s not just than an exercise in wishful thinking.

If it happens, it won’t completely eliminate the danger, and it won’t feel like a victory for anyone. It would look something like the situation that existed before President Obama negotiated his agreement to limit Tehran’s nuclear program.  

The United States recently dispatched an aircraft carrier group, bombers and Patriot missiles to the Persian Gulf region. It has designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization and ended sanctions waivers for some of the biggest customers for Iranian oil. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Iraq last week because of concerns Iranian allies could launch attacks on the roughly 5,000 U.S. troops stationed there.

Iran has continued adhering to the nuclear agreement, despite President Trump’s decision a year ago to pull out and reimpose sanctions. But its economy is in dismal shape. On Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would start stockpiling nuclear materials enriched to a low level instead of shipping them out of the country as the agreement requires. He gave other signatories to the agreement 60 days to ease the pressure on Iran.


With this level of tension, there are a lot of ways things could go badly wrong, even if neither side really intends it. With that much firepower concentrated in the Persian Gulf (through which 30 percent of the world’s sea-borne oil trade passes), very cool heads will be needed to avoid a military confrontation. Elsewhere, Iranian allies might indeed attack those U.S. troops in Iraq. Israel is concerned about Hezbollah missile attacks. Most dramatic and destabilizing would be a direct attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

No one seems quite clear on exactly the point of this increased U.S. pressure. That probably includes Iran, and possibly the Trump administration itself. As in so many other foreign policy areas, consistency isn’t this administration’s strong suit. Does Trump, as he reiterated on Thursday, really want to renegotiate the nuclear treaty with Iran? Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton seem more focused on regime change. Former neocon Max Boot worries that Bolton is trying to goad Iran into military action. Or, perhaps there is no real expectation of a revolution and no broader purpose than making Iran suffer, hoping its leaders will be preoccupied with domestic unrest and think twice about foreign adventures.

As for wishful thinking, don’t expect a new “grand bargain” between Iran and the United States. Chatham House senior Fellow Sanam Vakil surveyed 75 experts and found that less than 20 percent think that’s even possible. You might hope fed up Iranians revolt and throw out the mullahs. Here, courtesy of the BBC, is a quick look at how bad the Iranian economy is. Sanctions don’t usually lead to revolutions, however, and Iran has been able to keep a handle on unrest.  Or maybe Trump just gets tired of Bolton and his saber rattling? Reports indicate Trump feels misled by Bolton’s argument that heavy U.S. pressure would bring down Venezuela’s government. Even so, it’s hard to imagine Trump suddenly becoming buddies with Ayatollah Khamenei. That’s reserved for North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Still, there is a way in which North Korea might prove instructive. It has to do with Trump’s tendency to make maximum demands, and pull back when that doesn’t work. It took Trump little more than a year to go from “fire and fury” threats against North Korea to declaring that he and Kim “fell in love.”

You do have to wonder why — as they’ve pointed out repeatedly — the Iranians would negotiate with Trump, given that he threw out the last agreement, and that it’s not clear who actually is steering U.S. policy. Plus, moderates such as Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were burned badly by their pursuit of the now-defunct deal with Obama.

Maybe a new deal isn’t possible now, and maybe Iran doesn’t want one. But it wouldn’t be the dumbest idea to at least express an interest in talks to lessen the risk of a major miscalculation and to probe for Trump’s bottom line. North Korea’s Kim obviously thinks the president can be played. Iran could try something similar: slow-walk negotiations while trying to determine whether Trump can be enticed into taking something far less than he has demanded.

Even without reopening the Obama-era deal, Iran’s best bet still could be to hunker down. That will be tricky. The economy is getting worse, and unlike North Korea, Iran has a lot of domestic constituencies. Hardliners are having an “I told you so” moment about relations with the U.S., and will want to prove Iran can’t be pushed around. Some provocative actions are likely, but they could be calibrated in an effort to avoid a harsh U.S. response.

It’s possible — perhaps likely — that we’ll find ourselves with no nuclear agreement, Iran enriching uranium at a level below what’s needed for a weapon, and proxy skirmishes throughout the region — all in an atmosphere of deep underlying suspicion. Uncomfortable, but also very familiar.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by David Lundeen on 05/13/2019 - 09:31 am.

    The president couldn’t name the countries bordering Iran starting with Pakistan in clockwise order. Neither could many of the people who support him.

  2. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 05/13/2019 - 10:40 am.

    This is strictly a diversion created by Trump for Trump so you will look over there away from the things that keep making Trump look guiltier and guiltier here, like obstruction of justice, lawlessness related to Trumps claims that he has the power to do stuff when he doesn’t. It’s the conman in action. Now, apparently, he may be willing to send your son or daughter into war for his benefit. His bruised ego needs less negative attention so he is creating a war and then he’ll make himself a hero by claiming it will save. It is just like “Trade Wars” that Trump claims are easy to win. Ask the American farmers and consumer’s how the Trade War is going. When are we going to quit letting Trump bamboozle us with his illegal claims? Our feckless congress, that quote the Constitution every time they can, can’t seem to figure out how to use the Constitution. Based on Retired Supreme Court justices and over 500 prosecutors they say it is time to move on Trumps lawlessness. Now we have politicians afraid of politics and a master conman. This all SCREAMS “TERM LIMITS”.

  3. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/13/2019 - 02:32 pm.

    Unlike Iraq, Iran could do real damage to U.S. forces, perhaps even fight them off. The Iranians (Persians) are a proud people who have occupied pretty much the same territory for at least 3,000 years. They were one of the great civilizations of the ancient world, and unlike most Americans, with their abysmal ignorance of history, the Iranians know it.

    All reports are that young Iranians (everyone under 40 was born after the revolution) are sick of living in a theocracy and enjoy guilty pleasures such as rock music and smuggled DVDs, but that doesn’t mean they would stand by and let the U.S. take over without a fierce fight.

    Military action against Iraq is such an outrageously stupid idea that you have to wonder if Bolton and his ilk aren’t closet End Times types who think that they can bring about the end of the world and hasten Christ’s return to Earth, or at least, if they are telling their more gullible associates that this is their purpose.

  4. Submitted by Henry Johnson on 05/13/2019 - 09:41 pm.

    Yes, as Tom said it serves as a distraction from his domestic woes, but IMO probably also indicates that in addition both he and perhaps even more so John Bolton are just basically bellicose personalities who love to threaten and saber rattle, just for the sake of their egos if nothing else.

    It’s hard to imagine what actual good could come from this in terms of “regime change” and/or winning the “battle for hearts and minds” in Iran.

    As Karen correctly pointed out, young people may be sick of the theocracy, but I think all this threatening and bullying if anything is giving the hard-liner theocratic leaders over there useful ammunition, because as she pointed out, no one likes to feel that their country is being pushed around.

    And she’s right too that while the Iran is no match for the US militarily, they are no push-over either, and also they have the ability to fight a guerilla-terrorist war and I believe plenty of experience in funding, planning and directing such things I believe.

    So this whole things seems like foolishly poking a dangerous bear over and over again, just to appear macho or something – stupid.

    Shows the complete lack of strategic thinking I believe, and poor judgement and impulsive decision making that are Trump’s style (shoot from the hip and worry about consequences later), and again, perhaps even more so from Bolton, who has a reputation as a pugnacious war-hawk going way back.

  5. Submitted by Jeffrey Swainhart on 05/14/2019 - 06:28 am.

    The point is that Trump thinks it will help with his reelection. It covers all the bases. It serves Israel, it’s anti Muslim, it serves Saudi Arabia where Trump and Kushner have “deals”.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/14/2019 - 11:40 am.

      And here people thought the satirical political film, “Wag the Dog,” was based on an outrageous proposition: that any U.S. President would provoke a war just to rev up his base for reelection!

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/15/2019 - 09:53 am.

      It’s also “anti-something Obama did.” I don’t think most voters realize how important that is to the present administration, or how much of its policy is driven by that goal.

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